The Sonos may own this market for the moment, but other music-streaming systems have reared their monstrous heads of late. The pithily named WACS700 consists of a base unit and a slave unit to which music can be wirelessly streamed. Both include built-in speakers (of a strange flat-panel design), but only the base unit can rip CDs to a 40GB internal hard disk.
Given the relatively expensive components that go into these wireless systems, it's no surprise to find that Philips hasn't managed to vastly undercut the price of the Sonos. On paper, the WACS700 seems a much less capable system, but does its questionable 80s styling disguise a powerful underbelly?
The design team behind the WACS700 clearly feels a strong nostalgia for the Bang & Olufsen designs of the 80s. The bold, pin-striped fascia, the glossy black plastic and the silver control panel would all look perfectly at home on the shelf of a Thatcher-era City trader.
The base unit is enormous (608 by 303 by 175mm) and resembles the cross-section of a traffic-hump. No one could accuse it of being low-key. The unit's incredible weight (nearly 12kg) is down to the internal amplifier and speakers. As amplifiers increase in wattage, they inevitably increase in bulk, and for this reason, the WACS700 is an unwieldy beast.
CDs load into a slot mechanism on the top of the unit, and additional inputs can be hooked up via a pair of left-right phono jacks on the rear. As the unit is covered in glossy plastic, it picks up finger prints easily.
Overall, the chassis of both units seem solid, but they fall short of our criteria for style. In a world of Sony Vaios and Apple iPods, the WACS700 falls drastically short. Undoubtedly spectators will be divided on this.
Digital music lovers will love the WACS700's ability to rip songs straight from a CD and store them on its internal 40GB hard disk. This is the kind of thing that keeps record companies awake at night. The basic implementation of Philips' system is good, but there are problems with how long it takes to rip a CD -- more on that later.
Once songs are ripped, the base station will stream music to as many as five slave systems (alternatively called satellites). The units all contain 802.11g Wi-Fi cards, which stick proudly out of the top of the system. It looks like these can be replaced, possibly to allow users to insert new cards as Wi-Fi protocols evolve.
All of the units have a built-in FM receiver. Disappointingly, there is no DAB radio, nor is there provision to stream Internet radio. The WACS700 will connect to your PC and interface your music library with the wireless stations so that you can listen to it around the house. There are several limitations on the formats it will play back, though -- more on that to come.
We were extremely impressed by the way the WACS700 can rip CDs. Even modern computers can make this task rather difficult for the uninitiated. The WACS700 simply asks that you insert a disk and press the record button. It is, however, slow to rip. Our G5 Mac with iTunes rips an average CD in a couple of minutes, the WACS700 can take more than 15 minutes depending on the CD.
Recordings are made in MP3 format at either 160 or 128Kbps. This will frustrate audiophiles, who will crave a higher bit rate. 160Kbps is not a very high quality recording and pales in comparison to the CD original. If you are a stickler for quality, take a look at the Sonos -- this will stream music at full lossless CD resolution. The WACS700 will play back WMA files, but iTunes users won't be able to play their AAC files, nor will the Linux faithful have any luck with their championed format, Ogg Vorbis.
The unit stores a local version of the Gracenote database (the one iTunes uses to detect CD track names). This means that you'll be able to see the names of the tracks on the CD you've inserted even if the unit is not connected to the Internet. You can connect the system to the Internet periodically to update this database with new releases.
Once the units are switched on, you can pair them with each other fairly rapidly. As with all Wi-Fi networks, you may encounter problems if you move the base-station into a location with bad reception. Through trial and error you should find the best layout.
Compared to the interface most people are used to (the iPod), the WACS700 is cumbersome to navigate. The system insists that you scroll through all the tracks between the current track and the one you want to select.
Auditioning The Fat of the Land by the Prodigy, the WACS700 sounded sprightly. The mid and high end were decently represented, but the low end sounded muddied. Given the unusual design of the speakers -- they are electrostatic flat panels without obvious driver units -- it's no surprise that things sound a little unconventional. Anyone used to a decent pair of cones will be disappointed by the range and clarity of these units.
It's easy to dismiss the WACS700 as a quirky misadventure by Philips, but given that the unit is much cheaper than the Sonos, it's a viable alternative for anyone who can't justify the cost of a more expensive, though admittedly more capable, Sonos system.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Elizabeth Griffin